Running In Bed
It's not surprising that there is an entire genre of AIDS memoirs. People who survived the epidemic (or those who didn't, notably Paul Monette) during the plague years of the '80s believe they have a story to tell the world, and most of them do.
The shelf of novels covering the same years is thinner. Better known are theater pieces such as "As Is," "The Normal Heart" and "Angels in America," perhaps because only high drama can replicate the emotions of those years.
Jeffrey Sharlach, a highly successful public relations executive, has tackled the subject in his debut novel "Running in Bed," with mixed results. The story runs through what will be a familiar trajectory to anyone who lived in New York or another large city in the '70s and '80s.
A young man from the provinces arrives full of ambition and thwarted sexual desires. As he ascends the greasy pole of his profession, he simultaneously partakes of the greasy poles in the bars and baths. Eventually, he comes out to almost no one's surprise.
After kissing a hell of a lot of frogs, he finally meets his prince, only to see the hedonistic utopia of the '70s come crashing down in the face of a terrible new disease. It won't be revealing too much to say that a lot of people die in this book, which, at its best, manages to convey the sheer terror gay men felt in the years before HIV was discovered as the cause of AIDS.
Even after that, men were constantly examining themselves. Could that blister be Kaposi's sarcoma (an AIDS-related cancer seen on the skin)? Is my cough the beginning of PCP (an AIDS-related pneumonia).
Sharlach's narrator has a matter-of-fact style that relates all of these facts. What he lacks is the literary expressiveness to put in words the intensity of his and his friends' lives. Sharlach may be a great writer of press releases, but a novel requires much more than a recitation of events.
What puzzles me is why Sharlach was impelled to write a novel when so much of "Running in Bed" reads like a memoir. Although he has said that his protagonist's lover is a composite of men he knew, the basic facts of his narrator's life appear closely to match his own.
Although "Running in Bed" doesn't break any new ground, it was a good page-turner on a long airline flight. If that sounds like faint prize, you've never been stuck on a flight with a lousy book.
That said, it doesn't reach much beyond that. Interestingly, Sharlach's best passages are the earlier ones describing his narrator's slow progress from a quick shrink's "gay cure" sessions to his slow self-acceptance and acclimation in the gay world. The descriptions of period hangouts like Uncle Charlie's are spot on in their enumerations of the endless rules gay men had to (and pretty much still have to, even if it's online instead of on a bar stool) follow in their near nightly mating rituals.
This reads as a nice corrective, or at least a middle ground, between the two books that best described the period: Larry Kramer's jeremiad "Faggots" and Andrew Holleran's romantic elegy "Dancer from the Dance." Sharlach is neither as negative and skeptical about the running in bed everyone did in the sex-frantic years before the epidemic as Kramer; nor is he as wistful and longing about them as Holleran.
I found the later passages about the progress of the disease, oddly enough, to be less involving -- and I say this as one of Sharlach's contemporaries, who went through many of the same experiences. Maybe I've read too many such stories. Or maybe I've lived through too many. Whatever the reason, the deaths that permeate the second part of the book didn't have the expected punch in the gut.
For an easy read of the sad, early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York, the casual reader could do far worse than "Running in Bed." But to experience a true catharsis in its epicenter, readers may have to go elsewhere -- probably to the theater.
by Jeffrey Sharlach